NZEI tribute to Helen Kelly

14 October 2016

Helen Kelly’s many friends and former colleagues at NZEI Te Riu Roa are mourning her passing.

As a former teacher, Helen’s advocacy for public education was a lifelong passion, which was recognised in September last year when she was made an Honorary Fellow of NZEI for her enormous contribution to the goal of quality public education in New Zealand. 

NZEI President Louise Green said the union movement had lost a great leader, but those who knew her personally had also lost a compassionate and courageous friend who continued to fight for a better life for others right to the end of her own.

“She was truly someone who made a genuine difference in the lives of countless New Zealanders. Her passing is a loss to all of us, but we especially send our love and sympathy to Helen’s husband Steve and her son Dylan,” said Ms Green.

Helen started her career as a primary school teacher in Johnsonville, where she was made a union delegate on her first day in the job.

In 1993 Helen became the co-ordinator of the NZEI/Combined Early Childhood Union of Aotearoa general election campaign.  She held a number of roles after the unions amalgamated in 1994.

She played a prominent role in the primary pay parity campaign of the 1990s and continued the fight into the next decade on pay parity for kindergarten teachers.

Helen was a passionate campaigner for pay equity, something she strongly encouraged NZEI to carry forward, especially for low paid staff in education such as teacher aides and Ministry of Education support workers.

In 2002 Helen was appointed General Secretary of the Association of University Staff – now the TEU. 

In her years as President of the CTU, Helen garnered huge respect from workers, employers and governments alike whilst retaining the ability to hit hard when needed. She played the pivotal role in causing this government to agree to a massive review of our Health and Safety laws.

She is a personal hero to the families of those tragically lost in the Pike River disaster and those who have lost their lives in our forests.  More latterly, she has thrown the spotlight on the appalling safety record and poor working conditions of farm workers.

Helen has actively contributed to the rights of workers through her activities internationally and has taken a leading role in many of the debates and negotiations at the International Labour Organisation.

During all of this, Helen has been a staunch advocate for women’s rights, quality public education, the rights of our tamariki and the activities of NZEI Te Riu Roa. Even in the past few weeks she was actively engaging on social media to support the joint NZEI-PPTA "Better Funding, Better Learning" campaign.

In the past year since her cancer diagnosis, she campaigned for improved access to life-saving drugs through Pharmac, and legal access to medicinal cannabis for pain relief.